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Our Home and Native Land – How Ordinary Leads to Great – The Art of Kim Dorland

December 12, 2009 Artists No Comments
In a recent interview, Toronto-based artist Kim Dorland says: “Lots of paint piled up on little wood panels depicting heroic landscapes cover our National Museum walls.  I wanted to find a way to use this regional dialect in my work because its problematic and beautiful at the same time.”
Dorland’s words are particularly surprising given that you can’t walk into an art gallery these days without seeing video art (otherwise known as moving image art), art with lacquered surfaces, art with recognizable pop art references (Marilyn, especially, seems to be making a comeback, as is Lichtenstein), and/or computerized-digitized-and-any-other-kind-of-ized art you can think of.  In a world fixated on the pixelated images that have transcended our vocabulary to become the standard language in our post-Microsoft reality, much of today’s art has become as commonplace as the images on our computer screens.  It is, in a way, the ultimate twist of irony where much of today’s art (whether for commercial reasons or lack of imagination) mirrors the part of life that mirrors the repetitively mundane, the instantly-recognizable, or the nostalgic.  Amidst all this, it would appear that someone forgot to tell Kim Dorland that “painterly” has become obscure. No one unabashedly exults paint’s physical presence in a way that Dorland has made it his trademark.

I’m not at all suggesting that there isn’t a huge amount of serious talent amongst Canada’s emerging and mid-career artists – there is and they are nothing short of awesome; but it just seems that Canadian artists get it best when they either depict and/or approach their subject in a manner that is – for lack of a better expression – particularly Canadian.

So what is particularly Canadian?  Nature?  Our relationship to nature?  A “psychological” isolation (not to be confused for loneliness) and tension?  Resilience?  Compassion?  A sense of social responsibility?  Multiculturalism?  Think of our modern/contemporary painters and writers… all have openly embraced any one (or all) of these.  Most importantly, they have not been afraid to approach what others may consider “ordinary” subjects.  Nor have they been afraid to deal with issues in a non-sensationalized manner.  To understand the depth underlying the ordinary is what often turns great into extraordinary.

Certainly Dorland’s art is no exception to “particularly Canadian” themes – there is nature and there is isolation.  His recent painting, Nationalism, 2009, is both a nod to the past and a step into the future.  Most obvious, of course, is the title and the subject matter.  Both speak to our perception of Canadian art via the comfortably embedded image we have of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson setting up easels amidst an untamed nature.  Although this may be true to some extent, members of the Group of Seven sketched on small wooden panels which they would then take back to their studios while Tom Thomson often painted from memory.

Similarly, Dorland paints from images (often ones he finds on the internet), as well as from memory (he spent his teenage years in Red Deer, Alberta).  The neon-pink canvas that sits half-unfinished (or perhaps finished) is clearly a “Dorland” work.  Just as clear, however, is that Dorland uses the landscape as a reference and not as a subject in and of itself.   To paraphrase his words, he is looking to create a psychological dialogue which begins with an empty space in which you know something is going to happen.

Kim Dorland's Catwalk (2007) (Courtesy SKEW Gallery - Calgary)

His Catwalk depicts another Dorland trademark – faceless teenagers stuck in the midst of a not very white-fenced suburbia looking to “get away”.  They, for the most part, are the human inhabiters of Dorland’s work – even when they are not physically present their mark remains in the form of grafitti and beer cans.  Nature is a place of refuge for them, a place where they can get away, and while it may not appear environmentally correct to leave beer bottles strewn about, it is, in the end, a we-were-here affirmation.

In a country that is as defined by its empty space as it is by its cities, Dorland’s ‘to begin with an empty space in which you know something is going to happen’ is as quintessentially Canadian as it is Global.  Think Alice Munroe, think about the morning go-to-work ritual in the Twin Towers before the attacks of 9/11.

*The work appearing on the Home Page Top Bar/Thumbnail is Kim Dorland’s Nationalism (Courtesy of the SKEW Gallery).


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